Tuesday, July 5, 2011
By Christina Kahrl
There are all sorts of reasons to be in wonder of Albert Pujols' seemingly miraculous recovery from a broken wrist weeks ahead of schedule. That said, it was also an unusual injury since it was the product of a collision on the basepaths and because of the nature of the injury. From the very outset it sounded as if the setback would not cause the power-sapping problems so many power hitters suffer after wrist injuries. The speed of Pujols’ recovery is nothing short of amazing, and as Stephania Bell noted today, his chances of staying healthy are very good. He reportedly won’t be in tonight’s starting lineup against the Reds, but if you were Tony La Russa, could you imagine a more terrifying weapon to have at your disposal coming off the bench? Because if a game comes down to just one at-bat, damn straight I’m taking Albert over anybody, even zombie Babe Ruth.
The interesting thing to note as well is how the Cardinals’ offense performed during Albert’s absence, hitting .252/.314/.405 and averaging just 3.9 runs scored per game. Contrast that with their with-Albert numbers, when they plated almost a full run more per contest (4.8) while hitting a collective .272/.344/.416. You might have associated some of the problem with Lance Berkman’s expected cooling-off period, but Berkman’s .974 OPS “cool-down” only barely rates as such relative to the 1.022 mark he had before Albert landed on the DL.
If anything, two weeks is too short a time to nominate anyone as a goat -- not in any meaningful way. Rookie Mark Hamilton didn’t deliver in four starts between first base and DH during Albert’s absence, but that doesn’t tell you anything about Hamilton. You might nominate Matt Holliday (.705 OPS), Yadier Molina (.569) or Ryan Theriot (.558) as guys who didn’t deliver during Albert’s DL sojourn, but anybody can have a bad two weeks at any time, so I wouldn’t suggest there’s any relationship beyond unfortunate timing. Now that Pujols is back, Jon Jay goes back to being a nifty fourth outfielder, and the lineup’s only real question marks go back to being whether Skip Schumaker and Theriot will be able to fend off Nick Punto’s bid for playing time indefinitely.
That said, it will be interesting to see what Pujols’ return means for Berkman’s playing time in the outfield, especially now that interleague-related DH opportunities are over with. Berkman’s fielding might so far be most charitably described as “willing,” but he’s also not the run-saver Pujols is at first base. Naturally, all sorts of people are wondering about Pujols’ 10-game eligibility at third base for fantasy purposes, because La Russa’s willingness to start Albert at third no doubt already got their blood up. However, with regular third baseman David Freese already back from the DL, I suspect we won’t see much more than Albert rotating over to the hot corner as an in-game gambit.
Part of the virtue of risking Berkman in an outfield corner in the first place was that at least it was an on-field position where he was likely to do the least amount of damage. That same calculus from last winter holds true now, and with La Russa fully cognizant of the risks, don’t be surprised if Jay stills get plenty of action as a swapped-in defensive replacement, double-switch asset and spot starter, keeping Cardinals games and boxscores as entertaining as ever for fans of in-game tactics. In the meantime, as fans of all things baseball, we can all celebrate Albert’s reactivation.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.